Two news stories about Afghanistan sum up what might be about to go well in that war—and what's definitely going badly.
The good news, reported Wednesday by the Washington Post, is that Gen. David Petraeus, barely two weeks into his new position as U.S. commander, has convinced Afghan President Hamid Karzai to let him create local forces throughout the country as a bulwark against the Taliban. This is a big deal, bigger than it may seem at first glance.
The bad news, as suggested by a July 13 story in the Wall Street Journal, is that the U.S. approach to providing essential services to the Afghan people—a central feature of the Obama administration's counterinsurgency strategy—seems to be completely wrongheaded.
Let's do the bad news first.
According to the Journal story, by Yaroslav Trofimov, a huge development project on which the United States has spent more than $100 million—the repair and upgrading of the enormous Kajaki hydropower plant in southern Afghanistan—is backfiring.
The project has doubled the plant's electrical output, much of it to Helmand province, where U.S. forces are now engaged in a protracted fight with Taliban insurgents. The idea is that improving the Afghan people's lives (something that a more reliable flow of electricity would do) might rally them to support the Afghan government (on whose behalf we've made this investment) and steer them away from the Taliban (who, the people would see, can't give them what they need).
The problem is that the Taliban control vast swaths of the province, including much of the power grid. So they collect the monthly electricity bills—going door to door to do so—and use the money to fund the war against us.
And because the Taliban are out there collecting the bills (and sometimes siphoning off the power and redirecting the lines away to more cooperative households), they get the credit for the electricity, too.
Or, as the Journal's headline put it: "U.S. Rebuilds Power Plant, Taliban Reap a Windfall."
There's more than cruel irony going on here. The Kajaki project's unintended consequences reflect an endemic weakness in the U.S. approach to supplying the Afghan people with "essential services"—or, actually, two weaknesses.
The first weakness is the tendency, by U.S. aid agencies working in Third World countries generally, to view "development" as involving big projects. This view may be inappropriate for countries plagued with active insurgencies. The insurgents can siphon off the power for their own purposes; because the source of power is remote, the local people don't see it as their own and so don't (and, in fact, can't) defend it. If there are blackouts (perhaps due to insurgent tampering), the government gets blamed.
U.S. civilian and military officials have been arguing over this issue for months, the Journal reports. The commanders say that small, diesel-fueled generators would do the job more effectively. The civilians note that electricity from big power plants, like the one at Kajaki, is much cheaper—3 cents per kilowatt hour, compared with 45 cents for power from diesel generators.
This argument is reminiscent of the old joke about the drunk who drops his keys in the gutter but looks for them under the street lamp because that's where the light is. It's easier to search there, but that's not where the keys are. The big power plants are cheaper, but that's not how to thwart the Taliban or to build popular loyalty to the Afghan government.
The second weakness is more serious still. It may be, as Andrew Exum, an analyst at the Center for a New American Security (and a former special-ops officer who has fought multiple tours in Afghanistan), recently put it, that social services help the insurgency at least as much as they help the counterinsurgency.
To put the problem another way: We may have the wrong idea about what sorts of services the Afghan people really need.
David Kilcullen, a former adviser to Gen. Petraeus and author of Counterinsurgency, among other highly regarded books and essays on the subject, thinks that what the Afghan people want—and what the Taliban are doing a much better job at supplying than the Afghan government—is justice.
Where the Taliban have strongholds, they've set up courts, they issue property deeds, they even have ombudsman's offices where people can file complaints and get responses.
"There's nothing like that in the official Afghan system," Kilcullen says. "If you show up at an Afghan police station with a complaint, they'll beat you up for bothering them. If you take someone to an official court, it takes months to get a judgment, and it will go to the guy who pays the biggest bribe. The Taliban courts take a half-hour, they're free, and the Taliban locals enforce the agreement."
Taiban justice is often harsh, but it's swift, and it instills a sense of order. Kilcullen says the crucial factor in this war may be whether the government can match the Taliban on that score.
In other words, as he's written several times, the problem isn't so much that we're being outfought; it's that we're being out-governed.
This is why U.S. officials are so concerned about the corruption in Karzai's regime, in the provincial districts, in the Afghan police—throughout the entire ruling apparatus. The issue here is not about imposing morality or building democracy; it's about instilling a sense of legitimacy—a bond between the people and the government. Without that, no counterinsurgency campaign can succeed, no matter how well the generals plan or the soldiers fight.
It's precisely for this reason that the other bit of news—that President Karzai has finally agreed to let Gen. Petraeus form local police forces around Afghanistan—is, at least potentially, promising.
According to Post reporters Rajiv Chandrasekaran and Joshua Partlow, Karzai initially rejected the idea, fearing the rise of militias and "warlords," which could splinter the country. (Though Karzai didn't say so explicitly, it could also dilute the power of his regime and his cronies.) He approved the program after Petraeus agreed to institute formal links between the local police and the national government—through uniforms, oaths, and a paycheck from the interior ministry (which, of course, gets its money from NATO governments).
The idea is that local police—which would be trained and, to some extent, supervised by U.S. special-operations forces—would presumably be better-trusted by the locals because they are, for the most part, locals themselves. (The Afghan national police are widely distrusted because the national government is widely distrusted.) The plan is modeled after a program called the Afghan Public Protection Force, which has been in place for roughly a year in Wardak province and which has reportedly been more successful than the national police at warding off insurgents. One U.S. military official, quoted in the Post story, called these local police "a community watch on steroids."
It's a start. If the insurgents are going to be defeated or melt away or get co-opted into the established order, eventually the main counterinsurgents have to be Afghans themselves.